Power by Bertrand Russell [A Review]

Power is Bertrand Russell’s attempt to explain the mechanics and motivations behind the men who control the world and have an inordinately large influence on history, which at the time of writing included Hitler and Stalin. While it did not achieve the notoriety or influence Russell hoped it would, the book is a depository of enduring observations and good sense that explains so much about the world and the madmen we empower to run it, written with a characteristic Russellian combination of logic and wit.

Power

Bertrand Russell was an undisputed intellectual heavyweight of his time; a Nobel laureate and a man who literally wrote the book on Western philosophy. Imprisoned for his pacifism, he was an outspoken critic of war, imperialism and weapons of mass destruction. Taken altogether, his achievements and influence are far too numerous and diverse for me to reproduce here.

In Power, Russell sought to explain the state of the world at the time it was written in the late 1930’s. Published one month after the 1938 Munich Agreement, it was a time when the men in power included Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and Franco in opposition to the rest of the West. Russell was intrigued by the rise of such men but found no contemporary theory explained or predicted their rise or provided a method for responding to them.

Theories of what motivated human behaviour tended to rest on economic explanations (as in Marx) or on sexual explanations (as in Freud). But, as Russell points out, neither can explain why people continue to pursue power after their material or sexual needs have been satisfied. Russell’s book is an argument that power is a fundamental concept to understanding and explaining the state and progress of the world; that the history of the world cannot be properly interpreted without recognising the role played by the pursuit of power.

That being said, Russell did not consider his book and the ideas it contained to be definitive or comprehensive. He does not provide a new social theory nor does he champion power as a supreme motive. He does not ignore the influence of economics or psychology, whether in understanding organised greed or mob mentality. Instead the book is an argument that any explanation of historical events is meaningless without an understanding of the power motive which was absent from most social theories.

This is the case Russell makes in his opening chapter; that economic theories are inadequate at explaining historical events, that such events have been shaped by men who are causally important and that the love of power is a characteristic of such men. Russell also points out that positions of authority will inevitably be occupied by those who love power; in an equal society where the pursuit of power is open to all, those who want it more are more likely to get it.

His second chapter concerns the role of followers in their leader’s success; that the assumption of power of a leader is vicariously enjoyed by the followers who hope it will mean the triumph of their group over others. In doing so, he rejects Nietzsche’s argument of a slave mentality amongst followers and instead argues that such groups operate as a cooperative enterprise that makes the unequal sharing of power tolerable. Examples from history that Russell compares and contrasts include Cromwell, Napoleon, Lenin, Alexander and Caesar. Russell also provides many choice passages of the nature, pleasures and dangers of mob mentality.

From these introductions, I think Power can be divided into three further sections. In the first, Russell defines power and the forms it takes using numerous historical examples to colour his thinking. In the second, Russell digresses somewhat to discuss less fundamental but no less important topics on the nature of power such as its life cycle, its variation with different forms of government, the relationship of organised power to the individual, freedom of speech and moral codes. In the final section, Russell discusses philosophies of power, how the love of power might be made beneficent and finally, how power might be tamed.

Russell defines power as the ability to produce intended results. From this, he identifies three of his main forms of power – traditional power, naked power and revolutionary power.

Traditional power, which exists through force of habit without the need to continuously justify itself, is the subject of two chapters of its most overt examples; organised religion (priestly power) and monarchy (kingly power). Russell shows that even new religions and secular powers seek to appeal to tradition.

The usual plan is to invent a more or less fictitious past and pretend to be restoring its institutions.

As examples he cites the New Testament appeals to Old Testament prophets, countless medieval kingdoms claiming to be restoring the Roman Empire, Napoleon claiming to have restored the kingdom of Charlemagne. But his supreme example of traditional power is that of Pope Gregory VII, whose reign he examines in detail. The decline of both organised religion and monarchies have been far from steady or inevitable and Russell summarises the difficulties of unseating both from power.

When traditional power decays without a new tradition to replace it, there may be no limitations to personal ambition. In such circumstances, naked power rises to prominence. Russell characterises naked power as that of the butcher over the sheep. It requires no appeal to authority, no acquiescence of the subject. It is usually military in nature and its impact on history is hard to over exaggerate. Russell cites examples of naked power such as Agathocles of Syracuse and Cesare Borgia; and discusses how periods of naked power are brought to a close either by foreign invasion (eg Greece), stable dictatorship that becomes traditional (eg Augustus) or by forming a new religion (eg Islam).

But, in one of the best parts of the book, he ends his chapter on naked power by discussing its horrors – war, slavery, cruelty to children, workhouses, religious persecution, and antisemitism. While he acknowledges that some naked power must exists – to fight crime or defensive wars for instance – he appeals for naked power to be kept at a minimum. He cites the need for safeguards, due process, raising the living standards of the third world and protection for minorities.

Revolutionary power is power granted by popular assent of a majority (or large minority) which is not naked, such as that held by Washington or Protestant reformers. Russell provides four key examples from history – early Christianity, the Reformation and the French and Russian Revolutions. In examining the results of the first two of these revolutions, Russell documents the origins of the Church and State conflict, the rise of secularism, nationalism, individualism and liberalism, though with a criticism of The Rights of Man. In analysing the events that led to the rise of Napoleon and the events that followed his downfall, Russell sees the seeds of further revolutionary war, arguing that Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin owe their success to the precedent of Robespierre and Napoleon.

One source of power for which Russell cannot cite historical examples due to its relative novelty is economic power. Russell argues that economic power is derivative, since it relies heavily on other sources of power such as the enforcement of law or public opinion. Though he acknowledges that it can become independent where it is able to escape its creditors, such as it was with Caesar, Charles V, the City of London or the Nazis. Though this was a time when many feared worldwide communist revolution, as predicted by Marx and his adherents as an inevitability, Russell gives a simple but thorough takedown of this argument.

It is in this chapter that the reader might first begin to quibble with Russell’s arguments. He is, after all, writing in an era before television, mass-consumerism, powerful industrial lobbies, military-industrial complexes, Super PAC’s and globalised corporations. He therefore underestimates the ability of corporations to influence public opinion, democratic processes and even global conflict. Though, to be fair, at the end of this chapter he probably saw it coming:

Apart from what private individuals or groups can extract by bargaining, the State retains by right to take by force whatever it considers necessary. And influential private groups can induce the State to use this right, as well as the power of making war, in a manner which is advantageous to themselves though not necessarily to the nation as a whole.

As well as corporations, another area where this book may have been too early to offer conclusions is that of the influence of mass media on public opinion. Russell describes the historical method by which such influence occurs – the persuasion of a minority which then uses force to ensure their propaganda dominates over others. Then, once the majority has been converted, the use of force is no longer necessary. One important exception to this method that Russell offers is that of science and reason, which has the ability to persuade without the use of force. Though he says it is too early to judge the effectiveness of mass media, he notes that in his time its use is most heavy in totalitarian states.

In an age of Hitler and Stalin, the question of who would win in a war between a democracy of free-speaking but divided citizens against a totalitarian state of committed, unified fanatics is one Russell cannot ignore. It is a difficult question to answer and Russell shares many competing thoughts that show its complexity. While there are advantages to a unified populace, and even a case for imposed uniformity and suspension of personal freedoms in dangerous times, there are also risks. If the doctrine everyone subscribes to is out of step with fact; it will end in failure. And if the doctrine is absurd, the intellectual level will fall and the best minds will be leave or be expelled.

He points out that historical examples of unified fanaticism almost always ends in their defeat. Even where they do appear to win, their success is short-lived (as in the French Revolution) or fanaticism had nothing to do with their success (as for Cromwell). In a point that is often forgotten, Russell points out that the successful rise of the Arab Empire in late antiquity had more to do with the fatigue and vulnerability of their rivals than their fanaticism and that the stability of their conquest was due to the dethroning of the fanatics in favour of tolerant rulers.

The next section of Power is perhaps the weakest, though it still contains a lot of good sense. Russell discusses organisations of power – political parties, government departments, etc – in biological, even Darwinian, terms of life, growth, competition and decline. Though, to be fair, he warns against taking the analogy too far. From here Russell discusses how the nature of power differs with government type – absolute monarchy, oligarchy, theocracy and democracy – while also discussing the nature of governance within corporations.

This is followed by a short chapter on the relationships between organisations of power and the individual. A chapter on competition quickly descends into a discussion on freedom of speech; its importance, how it might be preserved, the hypocrisy of those who fail to defend it when they do not like what is being said and where it may be used as a tool for tyranny where government is not stable enough to preserve itself. Russell also devotes a chapter to the relationship between power and moral codes, particularly how this has changed in the West since the church lost its ability to claim moral authority, the result being public moral debate which all are free to join. Russell discusses the difficulties of moral codes, the problem of prescribing what is best for other people and cat and mouse ethics.

In the final section of the book Russell begins summarising his thoughts into arguments for how power ought to be used. Philosophies that exult or defend power, Russell argues, are all based on the love of power, from which not much good comes. But given the inevitability of power, Russell provides three criteria for a love of power to be beneficent; it must be bound up with an unshakeable desire for an end that is not power, its purpose must be to help the desires of others, and the negative effects of the means must not overwhelm the positive effects of the end.

In a final chapter, dense with good sense, Russell discusses the taming of power which he divides into four sections based on the conditions required; political conditions, economic conditions, propaganda conditions and psychological conditions. Here he considers such issues as diverse as how to overcome the flaws of democracy, the advantages and perils of state ownership and he finishes his excellent book with inspiring pages on the importance of educating the population in order to make democracy work.

Russell wrote Power in a short amount of time with very little need for research and it certainly reads that way. You feel as if you are reading the thoughts of someone of considerable intelligence, collected and put to words over the course of a couple of weekends, though he has probably dwelt on these matters for quite some time. The thoughts of someone who belonged to one of the last generations for whom an ‘education’ meant learning Latin, learning Greek myths and tragedies, classical and medieval history. Russell did not need to research as he could pluck the relevant historical and philosophical examples from his considerable intellectual capital.

The book is very much a product of its time; a time when war with Germany appeared inevitable, when the Western world was increasingly divided between established democracies and countries led by successful revolutionary dictators. The reader must keep this in mind when appreciating how well Russell understood the nature of men like Hitler and Mussolini, their origins and predicted their not inevitable downfall. The reader cannot help but feel Russell is onto something in his appreciation of power as an underlying force of history when he writes, at a time before nuclear weapons, that:

In former days, men sold themselves to the devil to acquire magical powers. Nowadays they acquire these powers from science, and find themselves compelled to become devils. There is no hope for the world unless power can be tamed, and brought into the service, not of this or that group of fanatical tyrants, but of the whole human race,… for science has made it inevitable that all must live or all must die.

There are advantages to having an origin in the past. Writing before the advent of political correctness, Russell was able to take shots at many cherished institutions that today would land you in trouble or have you labelled an Islamaphobe. But the book probably did not achieve the short-term notoriety or long-term influence he may have hoped for. That being said, there is still much in this book that will help the reader understand the current world. I could not help but think of George W Bush post-9/11 when reading:

In excited times, a politician needs no power of reasoning, no apprehension of impersonal facts, and no shred of wisdom. What he must have is the capacity of persuading the multitude that what they passionately desire is attainable, and that he, through his ruthless determination, is the man to attain it.

Or of Egypt post-Mubarak:

If the government is itself recent and revolutionary, and the population has strong reasons for discontent, freedom is almost sure to bring further revolution.

Until of course, the new government prevents further revolution by crushing freedom!

Another thing the reader can’t help but avoid is wondering what Russell would make of the current world. I’m not sure much would surprise him; he left enough wiggle room in his arguments to acknowledge different outcomes in different circumstances, but a few things may cause him to raise a solitary quizzical eyebrow. As mentioned previously, I think he may have underestimated the ability of corporations to influence democratic processes in their own countries and even influence global conflict.

Another thing that may surprise him is the growing impotence of science and reason to be persuasive in an age where flawed information is so easily accessible. It has been said that, if Darwin were alive today, he would be surprised by the prevalence of young-Earth creationism since the advancements in geology in the 19th century meant that holding a young-Earth view had become untenable even for the creationists of his day, as untenable as a flat-Earth view. So Russell’s view that “few beliefs long survive definite conclusive evidence of their falsity”, did not anticipate a world of Googlers. But then who did? He does note than while science debunked the magic various people claimed to possess, the respect accorded those people did not transfer to the scientist, who is less respected than the fakir or medicine man.

Perhaps most enduring are Russell’s thoughts on democracy. Though clearly a believer in constitutional democracy, Russell in no way places unquestioned faith in it and repeatedly shows he is in full appreciation of its flaws, limitations and is wary of assuming its endurance. He notes, for instance, that Hitler and Lenin owe their rise to democracy, in defiance of the assumption that democracy prevents tyrants. It is a thread that runs through the entire book, carrying too much weight for a poor summary here, and is essential reading. Especially to challenge those who speak of democracy, often their own version of it, in tones of divine perfection.

Perhaps most surprising is this book’s lightness, ease and humour. Russell displays considerable wit even when dealing with the most grave and serious subjects. Whether he is using Aesopian analogies to explain Hitler, comparing the unquestioned authority of the Supreme Court to that of a church, saying that corporate executives have more in common with kings and Popes than with Adam Smith’s tradesman, when comparing the governance of corporations to that of the Vatican or when wondering if the Tories would go to war against Hitler:

Should the occasion arise, British Tories of the present day will fight Hitler just as vigorously as they would if they did not admire him.

The following passage is probably the best to end with. It displays the all the essential features of this book; the acumen of its author, the importance of its subjects and, again, considerable wit:

The love of power is a part of normal human nature, but power-philosophies are, in a certain precise sense, insane. The existence of the external world, both that of matter and that of other human beings, is a datum, which may be humiliating to a certain kind of pride, but can only be denied by a madman. Men who allow their love of power to give them a distorted view of the world are to be found in every asylum: one man will think he is the Governor of the Bank of England, another will think he is the king, and yet another will think he is God. Highly similar delusions, if expressed by educated men in obscure language lead to professorships of philosophy; and if expressed by emotional men in eloquent language, lead to dictatorships. Certified lunatics are shut up because of their proneness to violence when their pretensions are questioned; the uncertified variety are given the control of powerful armies, and can inflict death and disaster upon all sane men within their reach. The success of insanity, in literature, in philosophy, and in politics, is one of the peculiarities of our age, and the successful form of insanity proceeds almost entirely from impulses towards power.

Note: This Routledge Classics edition of Power (2004) included a preface by Samuel Brittan and an introduction by Kirk Willis, some of whose insights I have included in the above.

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5 thoughts on “Power by Bertrand Russell [A Review]

  1. I’m adding this to my to-read list! Right now I’m reading Power edited by Steven Lukes. I am familiarizing myself with theories of power for my dissertation. Russell’s is another that I need to include. Thanks for making me aware of it.

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  2. This would have been a good book to read just before my trip to Berlin. Oh well…. In the city they have a superb exhibition devoted to what they called the ‘Terrors’ showing elements of how the Nazi party got into power and then held it for so long. The economic argument was one clear message. I’d love to see how Russell would tackle the issue if he were writing now with the benefit of hindsight and, as you say, the technology available. Some of the dictatorships we’ve seen via people like Amin and Gaddafi would make fascinating studies

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  3. Thanks for this intelligent summary. I am a reader of Russell, but I had forgotten many of the points you mentioned here. I would recommend also his later Authority and the Individual, written after WWII. I have been thinking about Power for a couple years, and now I’m trying to reconcile the arguments between it, Mills’ The Power Elite, and Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism and On Violence. Great thinkers who all came to some similar conclusions, and issues that still haunt us today. Thanks again.

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  4. Pingback: A 2016 Reading List | Rants & Raves

  5. Pingback: A 2016 Reading List | We Need to Talk About Books

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