Bertrand Russell wrote great prose, predicted Cold War and America’s victory in it

I’ve moved around a lot, and it’s made me a big fan of ebooks. These days, I’ve been going very strongly towards getting rid of any physical book I can replace with an e-copy, for the sake convenience when I’m traveling/moving. But one exception I’ve made is for a lesser-known anthology of Bertrand Russell’s writings, Sceptical Essays, and I’m glad I did because I reread it recently and damn, it’s an amazing book.

A blurb inside the cover says that Russell “wrote the best English prose of any twentieth-century philosopher.” For my money, Russell had some of the best (nonfiction) prose of any author I’ve read, ever. Exhibit A: the opening paragraph of Sceptical Essays:

I wish to propose for the reader’s favorable consideration a doctrine which may, I fear, appear wildly paradoxical and subversive. The doctrine in question is this: that it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true, I must, of course, admit that if such an opinion became common it would completely transform our social life and our political system; since both are at present faultless, this must weigh against it. I am also aware (what is more serious) that it would tend to diminish the incomes of clairvoyants, bookmakers, bishops and others who live on the irrational hopes of those who have done nothing to deserve good fortune here or hereafter. In spite of these grave arguments, I maintain that a case can be made for my paradox, and I shall try to set it forth.

What’s most remarkable about the book, though, is not its style, but in the window it provides into a time that’s now nearly a century in the past. The book was written in between World Wars I and II, and for Russell (in this book, anyway) the biggest reason we have to worry about irrationality is that it could lead to another World War I. He sees that war as having been driven by the two sides’ irrational hatred of each other; among other things, he thought that a scientific historian writing about the war would be bound to say things that would have gotten him in imprisoned in every country on either side of the war.

Another striking thing about the book is that it was written in a time when the whole world, including Britain was much poorer. He takes for granted that for most people, unemployment means starvation. In “Free Thought and Official Propaganda,” he writes:

I was invited by Trinity College, Cambridge, to become a lecturer, but not a Fellow. The difference is not pecuniary; it is that a Fellow has a voice in the government of the College, and cannot be dispossessed during the term of his Fellowship except for grave immorality. The reason for not offering me a Fellowship was that the clerical party did not wish to add to the anti-clerical vote. The result was that they were able to dismiss me in 1916, when they disliked my views on the war. If I had been dependent on my lectureship, I should have starved.

Russell cites this as an example of how “people who are not well-to-do dare not be frank about their religious beliefs.”

But he did not expect these economic conditions to last. In the final essay, “Some Prospects: Cheerful and Otherwise,” Russell predicts that:

…if wars are eliminated and production is organised scientifically, it is probable that four hours’ work a day will suffice to keep everybody in comfort. It will be an open question whether to work that amount and enjoy leisure, or to work more and enjoy luxuries; presumably some will choose one course, some the other.

It’s important to note that by early 20th century standards of “comfort,” this prediction is basically true, especially of rich countries, except that people are more likely to spend longer in school, take a year off to travel the world, taking a low paying job because they like it, etc. than to just work part-time their entire life. Though Russell uses words like “paradise” to describe his future world, I think if he were alive today he’d think the modern world had made a ton of progress towards fulfilling the description.

Most striking of all, however, is what’s essentially a prediction of the Cold War. In “The Danger of Creed Wars,” he writes:

There are in the world today only two great Powers: one is the United States, the other is the USSR. Their populations are about equal; so are the populations of the other nations which they dominate. The United States dominates the rest of the American continent and Western Europe; the USSR dominates Turkey, Persia, and most of China. The division is reminiscent of the mediaeval division between Christian and Mussulman; there is the same kind of difference of creed, the same implacable hostility, and a similar though more extended division of territory. Just as there were in the Middle Ages wars between Christian Powers and wars between Mohammedan Powers, so there will be wars within these two great groups; but we may expect that they will be terminated, sooner or later, by genuine peace treaties, whereas between the two great groups there will only be truces produced by mutual exhaustion. I do not suppose that either group can be victorious, or can derive any advantage from the conflict; I suppose the conflict maintained because each group hates the other and regards it as wicked. This is a characteristic of creed wars.

When I saw this, I had to triple-check it to make sure I was really reading something written in the 1920’s, rather than the last years of WWII or shortly after. It turned out that yes, Russell really did see that far into the future.

But that’s nothing compared to this part, from the “Some Prospects” essay:

…if our civilization is to develop, there will have to be a central authority to control the whole world. For, if not, causes of dispute will multiply and wars will become more intense owing to the growth of public spirit. The central authority may not be a formal government; I think it likely that it will not be. It is far more likely to be a combination of financiers, who have become persuaded that peace is to their interest because money lent to belligerent States is often lost. Or it may be a single dominant State (America), or a group of States (America and the British Empire). But before such a condition is reached, there may be a long period in which the world is virtually divided between America and Russia, the former controlling Western Europe and the self-governing Dominions, the latter controlling all Asia. Two such groups would be strong for defense and weak for attack, so they might subsist for a century or more. Ultimately, however–I mean at latest some time during the twenty-first century–there must be either a cataclysm or a central authority controlling the whole world. I shall assume that civilised mankind will have enough sense, or that America will have enough power, to prevent a cataclysm involving a return to barbarism…

An earlier passage makes quite clear that Russell did not think the assumption he was making in the last sentence was certain; even without knowing about nuclear weapons he was quite worried about a civilization-destroying war. He knew the future was uncertain, but was trying to explore the interesting what-ifs. And he came to the conclusion that if civilization wasn’t going to be destroyed, the world would have to end up under the control of some “central authority.”

Russell is sometimes attacked for wrongly predicting one-world government, but the above passage makes clear that he was not predicting one-world government as most people would think of it, but something like, well, America’s post-Cold War status as the sole superpower. That’s pretty impressive (though to call it a “correct prediction” is misleading, Russell didn’t so much predict it, as suggest it was among the more likely outcomes).

Russell does, however, get quite a bit wrong as he tried to fill in the details of how the “central authority” would behave. Russell says, “it must be able to decide questions of peace and war, or to ensure that if there is war the side which it favours wins a speedy victory.” America today has this power to a limited extent, with its military supremacy, though it doesn’t extend to always being successful at counter-insurgency or daring to invade nations with nuclear weapons.

Furthermore, Russell had the idea that a group of financiers might be able to dictate outcomes of wars by withholding loans from the side they wanted to lose. This seems like a serious mistake of economic theory–wars aren’t really settled with money so much as with soldiers, ships, raw materials, factories, etc. Ominously, Russell supports his idea about financiers with the example of how the Treaty of Versailles disarmed Germany after World War I. (So while his worries about a second World War I were prescient, he seems to have gone wrong in thinking it might be America vs. Russia.)

Russell also imagined that the “central authority” would decide three major issues: “(1) the allocation of territory to the different national States, (2) movements of population across the boundaries of national States, and (3) the rationing of raw materials as between different claimants.”

Point (1) is definitely wrong, instead what we decided is that the boundaries that were set in the aftermath of World War II would be permanent, and for the most part they have been. As Steven Pinker argues in The Better Angels of Our Nature, this can be seen as a largely successful strategy for preventing wars over where the boundaries are to be drawn, and America, in spite of its sole superpower status, is in no position to change national boundaries by fiat.

On point (2), Russell seems to have imagined that it would be necessary for rich countries to force poor ones to adopt population control measures, to prevent over population. This was based partly on correctly observing that in his own day, it was mainly wealthier people who limited their family size–what Russell failed to see is that this habit would spread throughout the world as the world as a whole got richer, to the point that we all expect world population to stabilize.

Point (3), though, almost sounds like an uncannily accurate prediction, at least if you’re of the view that America’s wars in the Middle East are largely about oil.

I feel like there should be some lesson at the end here, but I’m not sure what it is. Anyone?

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