The New Europe/Volume 2/A Philosophy of Pacifism

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A Philosophy of Pacifism

Principles of Social Reconstruction: Bertrand Russell. 1916. (Allen & Unwin.)

Mr. Russell’s book contains a good deal of common sense, along with deep thinking about war and permanent peace; but it is his common sense rather than his philosophy that will impress both the general public and the specialists. Mr. Russell is a pacifist, but, like almost all pacifists, he deprecates Utopias. He also denounces those pacifists who naïvely believe that war is due to diplomatists and governments; while as for those “passive” pacifists whose impulsiveness and active energy is atrophied, he even thinks that “the supporters of war would be right in decrying such men.” Mr. Russell himself is an “active” pacifist; he advocates a pacifism which would not weaken or cripple the activity and energy of men; he maintains, indeed, that this activity and energy can and should be strengthened. Yet his ideal is to create such a universal condition of society as would make war unnecessary and impossible.

Mr. Russell believes that the right kind of pacifism must become the foundation of a new political philosophy which will promote “life,” by which he means activity and energy. According to this view of pacifism, activity springs from impulses—for conscious purposes, he says, play a very small part in moulding human life—and these impulses are of two kinds, the “creative” and the “possessive”; the best life is that which is built on the former at the expense of the latter. The liberation of creativeness must therefore be the root principle of reform in politics and economics; for political and economical institutions have great influence on the dispositions of men. State, war, property, are classed as the chief political embodiments of the “possessive” impulses; while education, marriage, religion, ought to embody the creative impulses, although at present they do so very inadequately. In other words, civilised society is too passive, it is even decaying; and, therefore, if it is to be saved, the civilised world has need of a fundamental change.

Traditional Liberalism, Mr. Russell argues, cannot inspire this change. Mankind needs a new, a higher philosophy of politics.

The philosophical interest of Mr. Russell’s “Principles” lies in his conception of human activity, its origin and value. Mr. Russell presents a peculiar system of activism which reminds us of Schopenhauer and some recent psychologists, or rather psychiatrists (indeed, he quotes Hart’s “Psychology of Insanity”), and in which he emphasises the co-called unconscious or subconscious mental processes. Man, according to Mr. Russell’s psychology, is an active being, and impulses and desires derived from the instincts of self-preservation and reproduction are the main source of human activity. Like Schopenhauer, Mr. Russell thinks these impulses and desires are blind; but in contradistinction to Schopenhauer he recognises two other sources of activity—the mind and the spirit. He acknowledges that mind, and in a higher degree spirit, checks, dominates, and informs the life of instinct.

This psychology of Mr. Russell’s is a difficult chapter of his book, and a rather obscure part of his “Principles”; it is obscure in itself, and it is further obscured by his confounding psychological with ethical valuations. The hierarchy of instinct-mind-spint is ethical rather than psychological, and the psychological relation of the various psychic forces is left unexplained. For instance, what is meant psychologically if the desires and impulses are “derived” from the instinct of self-preservation and reproduction? And what is the psychological relation of impulse and thought (mind)? We are told that a subconscious selectiveness of attention “persuades” most (not all!) men that agreeable consequences will follow from the indulgence of their impulses. We are told that whole philosophies, whole systems of ethics, spring up in this way, being the embodiment of a “kind of thought” which is “subservient” to impulse, and “aims” at providing a “quasi-rational” ground for the indulgence of impulse. We read, further, that “most of what passes for thought” is inspired by some “non-intellectual” impulse. The whole of this terminology is very vague, and directly anthropomorphic; there is no analysis of the real nature of thinking and of mental activity in general. The value of thought or knowledge, according to this definition (p. 15), is rather small; but there are passages in the “Principles” where we read that the power of thought “in the long run” is greater than any other human power (p. 226); of course, the qualification “in the long run” refers rather to history than to psychology. We also learn that thoughts, in relation to instinct, are “merely critical” (p. 209), and reason is declared to be too negative, too little alive to make a good life! Therefore the spirit is necessary to dominate the instincts. But the life of the spirit, we are told, “centres round impersonal feeling” (whereas the life of the mind centres round impersonal thought). How, then, can the spirit become this commanding and creative force which Mr. Russell would like to see in it? We must ask this question all the more in that we also read that only passion can control passion, that only a contrary impulse or desire can check impulse (p. 12). If we read in addition of “passive” and “active” thoughts (p. 242), of “genuine” thoughts springing out of “intellectual impulses” (p. 15), etc. the psychological embarrassment becomes rather oppressive. And yet I would not say that Mr. Russell is quite wrong; at least his psychology is to me a very interesting attempt to escape from the old naïve English psychology of passive association, and to build up a psychology of activity and creation. But the analysis is not clear enough; psychology, ethics, politics, history, are mixed and entangled in a rather confusing manner, and the theory of creativeness and of its freedom is not fully elucidated.

Mr. Russell’s object is to delineate a new philosophy of politics; but although his aims are noble, acceptable and many of them even desirable, yet the system by which he proposes to achieve them is rendered scientifically unsound by reason of its uncertain psychological foundation. I will adduce only one instance to show this fatal insufficiency of Mr. Russell’s psychology. His principal task would seem to be to show how the individual forces of men operate in and for the community, in and for society, and how these individual forces affect or make the historical process. Mr. Russell makes no such attempt; he simply opposes to “individual” impulses the “general” impulses of the community, and adds that they are contagious (p. 11); but the historical process, the social development and progress are not considered.

Assuming that human nature is governed by blind impulses, we would like to hear how society can progress, how changes are brought about, which forces lead to improvement. Is it a blind teleology which leads mankind?

Mr. Russell hopes for a new philosophy of life or (p. 245) a religion which will promote life. We shall not insist now on the relation of this philosophy to religion; we learn that this religion “starts” from the spirit and “endeavours” to dominate and inform the life of instinct (p. 207), but what does this mean in reality? What or who guarantees the aims of this religion (or philosophy)? It is not enough to say that we must promote and liberate creativeness—which aims, which principles, must we accept and on what reason and authority? If religion is the real and supreme leader of society what will be the relation of this religion to the State, which, according to Mr. Russell, will continue to subsist?

John Stuart Mill, speaking of the logic of sociology, very aptly shows the insufficiency of a method which he calls the geometrical, or mathematical: I fear Mr. Russell’s previous works bearing on logic and mathematics have led him to adopt a sociological method which fails by reason of its “simplism,” as it has been called by a French thinker. His fundamental notions of society, state, church government, etc., are too abstract. To-day we want more concrete, more articulated (if I am allowed to use the word in this sense) notions of the State, of its single forces and its organisation; to say the State is the repository of the collective force of the citizens (p. 45) is too abstract a definition.

We can accept many of Mr. Russell’s aims: the promotion of freedom and individual creativeness, the substitution of law for force in the relations of men, the multiplication of voluntary organisations, to name only a few; but it is not only the proposal of noble aims which we expect from a new philosophy of politics, but the critical elucidation of its fundamental notions and an elaboration of a sound method, if we are to steer clear of Utopias.

Happily Mr. Russell is led by strong common sense; while advocating the restriction of the power and activity of the State he avoids the snares of radical anarchism; speaking of property and the economic organisation of modern society he makes some sound remarks—for instance, on economic materialism. He wishes to restrict capitalism, but not to abolish it, and on the whole he favours the co-operative movement and syndicalism.

We also find good passages on education in Mr. Russell’s “Principles”; but his criticism of the existing system of education is better than his positive propositions, which again are too general. Yet his demand for reverence for the child is very happy and suggestive, and his whole scheme of education is based on the conviction that hope, not fear is the creative principle in human affairs.

The chapter on marriage is somehow too one-sided, dealing almost exclusively with the population question; it is noteworthy that he looks for the solution of the problem to “some form of religion.” Religion, indeed, plays a prominent part in Mr. Russell’s scheme of Social Reconstruction; but here again we must express the wish that the chapter on religion and churches had been more positive; just because he assigns to religion the leading rôle in social reconstruction the nature of this religion should have been sketched in a more concrete form. He contents himself with criticisms of ethics and the churches, overlooking the fact that morals and ecclesiastical organisation do not exhaust the question of religion. “Contact with the eternal world” and kindred ideals are to-day too vague.

War is treated by Mr. Russell as an institution. War, he holds, originates in the blind impulse of aggression and in beliefs appropriate to it (such as that of being the chosen people, of higher race, etc.). He gives Bernhardi, the early Mohamedan conquerors, and the Book of Joshua as examples of the warlike spirit. He does not pretend that war has no good results (he confesses to have learned by this war like everybody else); the wish for the triumph of one’s cause, the sense of solidarity with large bodies of men he deems to be good. He is aware of the fact that the majority of nations enjoy the intensive activity and the display of energy which is afforded by war; he confesses that the pax Romana of the Roman Empire was accompanied by decay, and he acknowledges that “without imagination and love of adventure a society soon becomes stagnant and begins to decay.” “It is only the outcome in death and destruction and hatred that is evil,” and therefore his ultimate wish, sounding like a prayer, is: “Let us come out of this death!”

As we have already seen, Mr. Russell advocates an active pacifism. Such a pacifism, facing as it does the opposition of the great majority of one’s own nation, and willing to incur even danger (this may be taken as a very discreet allusion to his own sad experience), does not, he thinks, lead to passivity; it tends to replace the bellicosity which ends in death, by a bellicosity, or at least a vital energy, which promotes peaceful and healthy activity. Following up his theory of impulse, he thinks that the blind impulses which lead to war and death also lead to art and glory; those impulses must not be weakened or crushed, but directed into other channels.

Mr. Russell hopes that active pacifism will generally prevail; the final substitution of law for force in the relations of men will be achieved either by a world-state or by a federation of states. All disputes are to be settled not by the legal judgment of the Hague tribunal, but in the sense in which they would be actually decided by war.

We cannot accept his theory of war and peace, because its psychological and ethical foundation is wrong.

He thinks the blind impulse of aggression is by nature checked by an equally blind impulse of resistance to aggression, but there is also a moral conviction deepened by experience and the study of human nature, that man must resist aggression; that defence and even a war if defensive is legitimate and not immoral.

War is not the greatest evil, though it is an evil. The open struggle of the battlefield is not the greatest evil; worse is that chronic condition of society which makes possible the violence of the stronger to the weaker; worse than war are insincerity and falsehood; worse is that egotism hidden under the mask of humanity and nobility in mind; worse is cowardice passing itself off as fortitude; worse is sophistry deceiving the sensible and wise. Death is not worse than a dishonourable life which destroys its own soul as well as that of its neighbour.

But the war of the present age, on land as well as on sea, presupposes a whole system of so-called militarism, and militarism is very evil, especially militarism as developed by Prussia. Militarism is aggressiveness organised; Prussian militarism is the principal and leading function of the State; Prussia, therefore, spends comparatively larger sums on the army than the other States.[1]

Against such militarism it is necessary to be on the defensive. Pacifism at any price is an unnatural and unsound proposition. Democratism does not exclude military defence, it excludes only Prussian militarism. Radical pacifism, Tolstoy’s theory of resisting not the evil, is not right. Every action is judged ethically with a view to its motive; there is therefore a difference, not only a psychological, but also a moral, between aggressive violence and defence, between the offensive and the defensive. The argument of the pacifists that the western states, by accepting universal military service, accept Prussian militarism is unsound. In the West the army will rather be a kind of militia, such as is recommended even by the antimilitarist Socialists. Tolstoy leads to quietism, by which the permanent injustice of the violent would be rendered possible. Such a pacifism as appeals to humanity is in reality inhuman; I shall not even speak of the fact that the apostles of this pacifism do not know Prussian militarism and are ignorant of the conditions on the Continent in general.

In this war even Prussian militarists have unconsciously recognised the correctness of this point of view, which is proved by the fact that they have tried by every means in their power to prove that their war was a defensive one; to that they were led by the German constitution, which allows the Emperor to declare war without the consent of Parliament, only in the case of a defensive war. The question of who began the war and whose is the guilt of having caused it, is of the greatest importance from the democratic and moral point of view.

Democracy demands defence, but it denounces injustice towards the enemy; democratic defence must not exceed the limits of justice in dealing with the enemy. For that reason the future peace must be a just one.

Democracy excludes the Prussian idolatry of war, and does not recognise it as the absolute measure of political and cultural capacity. The present war has already uprooted Prussian theories by revealing first of all how all the nations have proved their bravery and self-sacrifice on the battlefield—the Serbian, Russian, French, British, Italian, Belgian soldiers do not fight by any means less bravely than the German, and the nations of the Allies are not less capable of self-sacrifice than the Germans. As regards the French, the Pangermans declared that they were a decadent nation, and therefore deserving of no respect. On the battlefield they have completely disproved these Pangerman theories.

The Allied armies have worsted Prussian militarism, not only by their bravery, but even by their strategy. This applies essentially to the British Army; this is the first time, in fact, that the British have had a large army; and their new army is already capable of withstanding the old militarist army of Prussia, an army of military specialists. That is a decisive proof that a militia is sufficient even from the strategical point of view.

From the moral as well as the political standpoint we must reject Mr. Russell’s views on patriotism and nationalism. He thinks patriotism is unsatisfactory because it lacks universality; but even socialists, advocating humanitarian universalism, have been convinced that sound patriotism and nationalism are the organic step towards a living cosmopolitanism; national indifference generates a kind of cosmopolitanism, which, in fact, is political decay. Mr. Russell, though he repudiates imperialism, including British imperialism, is in danger himself of becoming a passive pacifist, by accepting the peaceful hegemony of the Germans (he does not say this explicitly, but it must be understood from p. 100); and by expressing the wish that Britain had yielded colonies to the Germans. He does not seem to know that, as a matter of fact, Britain has so yielded. The New Europe has already quoted on that point such an authority as the leader of Pangermanism, Herr Rohrbach. We have here an instance of how Mr. Russell’s geometrical method in politics must of necessity lead to grave mistakes; but it is not only the method, it is the unsound philosophy of politics which misleads Mr. Russell. Though an advocate of activism he falls a victim to pacifist passivism; he is, for instance, also willing to accept unfavourable alterations in the map (p. 86) now and still more in the future, when the Parliament of Nations have altered the distnbution of territories (p. 87). This view of his is dangerous because of its vagueness—it is one of the great defects of the “Principles” that the urgent question of nationality has not been expounded. On what principle are territories to be redistributed, and to what extent? Because of its abstractness Mr. Russell’s pacifism is not practical. In the question at issue we can rely on the authority of the Danish pacifist Nordentoft (“Practical Pacifism and its Adversaries,” George Allen and Unwin, 1917), who rightly claims as one of the principal tasks of pacifism the securing of the rights of language and nationality to the peoples under foreign rule.

Mr. Russell concedes that conditional Liberalism is not sufficient to meet the problems and dangers of the present crisis; we fully appreciate his endeavour to implant a more effective and strenuous philosophy of politics, but we must confess that the “Principles,” though they are one of the best attempts at a truly philosophical foundation of pacifism, are a philosophic failure; the psychology of Mr. Russell’s pacifist politics is vague and wrong, and so is its ethical foundation. The principles of the “Principles” are lacking.

  1. As evidence I mention an article written before the war: Adolf Grote, “Die angebliche und die wahre Höhe der deutschen Kriegslasten, Friedenswarte,” 1913; evidence is here adduced which shows that German armaments were not the result of the French, but that Germany was the aggressor.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.


The author died in 1937, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.