Power by Bertrand Russell

Power by Bertrand Russell

Copyright 1938

Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company. Has had numerous editions

This is a book I read in high school and recently reread. It is an excellent treatise on the different types of power such as: kingly, priestly, military, economic and revolutionary. He discusses the types of people attracted to power, the leaders and the followers, the forms of power, organizations, the ethics of power and the taming of power. It is not a long book and is an easy read with a lot of very thought provoking material. Although Bertrand Russell is a favorite author and political theoretician of mine I find much to disagree with him and things to find glaring fault with. Just prior to WWII he and other pacifists in England and France were advocating disarming. Russell advocated England disbanding their entire military in the late 1930s. He was still advocating it only months before WWII began. Many attribute the fiasco of Chamberlain appeasing Germany for so long was because the British forces were dangerously unprepared due to the anti-war sentiment and the failing to upgrade and maintain their military properly. It almost cost them the war.

Below are excerpts from it:


“Between man and other animals there are various differences, some intellectual, some emotional. One of the chief emotional differences is that some human desires, unlike those of animals, are essentially boundless and incapable of complete satisfaction.”


“A large proportion of the human race, it is true, is obliged to work so hard in obtaining necessaries that little energy is left over for other purposes; but those whose livelihood is assured do not, on that account, cease to be active.”


“Imagination is the goad that forces human beings into restless exertion after their primary needs have been satisfied.”


“While animals are content with existence and reproduction, men desire also to expand, and their desires in this respect are limited only by what imagination suggests as possible.”


“Inequality in the distribution of power has always existed in human communities, as far back as our knowledge extends……….. Most collective enterprises are only possible if they are directed by some governing body. If a house is to be built, someone must decide on the plans; if trains are to run on a railway, the timetable cannot be left to the caprices of engine drivers; if a new road is to be constructed, someone must decide where it is to go. Even a democratically elected government is still a government, and therefore, on grounds that have nothing to do with psychology, there must, if collective enterprises are to succeed, be some men who give orders and others who obey them.”


“The impulse of submission, which is just as real and just as common as the impulse to command, has its roots in fear. The most unruly gang of children ever imagined will become completely amenable to the orders of a competent adult in an alarming situation, such as a fire; when the war came, the Pankhurst’s made their peace with Lloyd George. Whenever there is acute danger, the impulse of most people is to seek out authority and submit to it; at such moments, few would dream of revolution. When war breaks out, people have similar feelings towards the government.”


“The ordinary quiet citizen, we said, is led largely by fear when he submits to a leader. But this can hardly be true of a gang of pirates, unless no more peaceable profession was open to them.”


“After anarchy, the natural first step is despotism, because this is facilitated by the instinctive mechanisms of domination and submission; this is been illustrated in the family, in the state, and in business.”


“Mankind need government, but in regions where anarchy has prevailed they will, at first, submit only to despotism. We must therefore seek first to secure government, even though despotic, and only when government has become habitual can we hope successfully to make it democratic.”


“I have spoken hitherto only of those who command and those who obey, but there is a third type, namely those who withdraw…….Such men do not fit readily into the social structure, and in one way or another they seek a refuge where they can enjoy a more or less solitary freedom.”


“Many American pioneers, after suffering long hardship and privation, sold their farms and moved further west as soon as civilization caught up with them. For men of this temperament the world affords fewer and fewer opportunities. Some drift into crime, some into a morose and anti-social philosophy. Too much contact with their fellow-men produces misanthropy, which, when solitude is unattainable, turns naturally towards violence.”


“The kind of mob that the orator will desire is one more given to emotion than to reflection, one filled with fears and consequent hatreds, one impatient of slow and gradual methods, and at once exasperated and hopeful.”


“Those who have the habit of controlling powerful mechanisms, and through this control have acquired power over human beings, may be expected to have an imaginative outlook towards their subjects which will be completely different from that of men who depend upon persuasion, however dishonest.”


“Conquest by force of arms has had more to do with the spread of civilization than any other single agency.”


“Different types of organization bring different types of individuals to the top, and so do different states of society.”


“The most successful Democratic politicians are those who succeed in abolishing democracy and becoming dictators.”


“When once a dictatorship has been established, the qualities by which a man succeeds a dead dictator are totally different from those by which the dictatorship was originally created. Wire pulling, intrigue, and court favor are the most important methods when heredity is discarded. For this reason, a dictatorship is sure to change its character very considerably after the death of its founder.”


“The qualities required for power behind the scenes are very different from those required for all other kinds, and as a rule, though not always, they are undesirable qualities. A system which accords much power to the courtier or wire-puller is, therefore, in general not a system likely to promote the general welfare.”


“Traditional power, when not destroyed from without, runs, almost always, through a certain development. Emboldened by the respect which it inspires, it becomes careless as regards the general approval, which it believes that it cannot ever lose. By sloth, folly, or cruelty it gradually forces men to become skeptical of its claim to divine authority.”


“He spoke the following about the Ancient Greek civilization: “So long as it was possible for everybody to be prosperous, the weakening of tradition did more good than harm…………….. But the social structure had not the toughness required to resist misfortune, and individuals had not the moral standards necessary for the avoidance of disastrous crimes when virtue could no longer bring success.”


“The Reformation. From the point of view of power, the Reformation has two aspects that concern us: on the one hand, theological anarchism weakened the Church; on the other hand, by weakening the Church it strengthened the State. ……………. Luther, in order to succeed against the church and the extremists, was obliged to rely upon the support of secular princes;…………”


“Revolutionary power, as the case of Napoleon shows, is very apt to degenerate into naked power. The clash of rival fanaticisms, whether in foreign conquest, in religious persecution, or in the class war, is distinguished, it is true, from naked power by the fact that it is a group, not an individual, that seeks power, and that it seeks it, not for its own sake, but for the sake of its creed.”


“In a state of complete anarchy, involving a war of all against all, gold would be useless except to a man so quick and sure with his revolver as to be able to defend himself against every assailant;…… Such a state of affairs would necessarily be unstable, except possibly in a very sparse-food gathering population. Agriculture is impossible unless there are means of preventing trespass and theft of crops. It is obvious that an anarchic community composed of more or less civilized individuals, like the men in the gold rush, will soon evolve a government of some kind, such as a committee of vigilantes. Energetic men will combine to prevent others from plundering them; …….”


“……… Where the issue is simple and public opinion is definite, the plutocracy is powerless; but where public opinion is undecided or baffled by the complexity of the issue, the plutocracy can secure a desired political result.”


“Economic and military power have never, in the past, been so closely interconnected as they are at present. No nation can be powerful without developed industrialism and access to raw materials and food. Per contra, it is by means of military power that nations acquire access to such raw materials as are not obtainable on their own territory.”


“The men of science proved to intelligent layman that a certain kind of intellectual outlook ministers to military prowess and to wealth; these ends were so ardently desired that the new intellectual outlook overcame that of the Middle Ages, in spite of the force of tradition and the revenues of the Church and the sentiments associated with Catholic theology. The world ceased to believe that Joshua caused the sun to stand still because Copernican astronomy was useful in navigation; it abandoned Aristotle’s physics because Galileo’s theory of falling bodies made it possible to calculate the trajectory of a cannonball; it rejected the story of the flood because geology is useful in mining; and so on. It is now generally recognized that science is indispensable both in war and in peace time industry, and that, without science, a nation can be neither rich nor powerful.”


“Science gave the white man the mastery of the world, which he has begun to lose only since the Japanese acquired his technique. “ (This was written before the rise of Russia and China).


“One of the arguments against democracy is that a nation of united fanatics has more chance of success in war than a nation containing a large proportion of sane men.”


“It should be observed, to begin with, that the cases in which fanaticism has led to success are naturally better known than those in which it has led to failure, since the cases of failure have remained comparatively obscure.”


“The cases in which fanaticism has brought nothing but disaster are much more numerous than those in which it has brought even temporary success.”


“Democracy, in a modern great state, has certain disadvantages, not, indeed, as compared with other forms of government over the same area, but inevitably owing to the immense population concerned. In antiquity, the representative system being unknown, the citizens assembled in the marketplace voted personally on each issue. So long as the state was confined to a single city, this gave to each citizen a sense of real power and responsibility, the more so as most of the issues were such in his own experience enabled him to understand.”


“So far, the effect of the organization’s characteristic of civilized societies is to increase a man’s liberty as compared with (say) a peasant in a comparatively undeveloped community. Consider the life of a Chinese peasant, as compared with that of an occidental wage earner. As a child, it is true, he does not have to go to school, but from a very early age he has to work. He is more likely than not to die an early childhood, from hardship and lack of medical care. If he survives, he has no choice as to his means of livelihood, unless he is prepared to become a soldier or a bandit, or to run the risk of migrating to some large town. Custom deprives him of all but a minimum of freedom as to marriage. Of leisure he has practically none, and if he had it there would be nothing very pleasant to do with it. He lives always on the margin of subsistence, and in times of famine a large part of his family is likely to die of hunger. And hard as life is for the man, it is far harder for the wife and daughters. Even the most depressed of the unemployed, in England, have a life which is almost a paradise in comparison with that of the average Chinese peasant.”


“To come to another class organizations, those designed to prevent a man from doing injury to others: the most important of these are the police and the criminal law. In so far as these interfere with crimes of violence, such as murder, robbery, and assault, they increase the freedom and happiness of all but a small minority of exceptionally ferocious individuals. Where the police are not in control, gangs of marauders quickly establish a reign of terror, which makes most of the pleasures of civilized life impossible for all except the gangsters. There is, of course, a danger: it is possible for the police themselves to become gangsters, or at any rate to establish some form of tyranny. This danger is by no means imaginary, but the methods of coping with that are well known. There’s also the danger that the police may be used by the holders of power to prevent or obstruct movements in favor of desirable reforms. That this should happen to some extent, seems almost inevitable. It is part of the fundamental difficulty that the measures which are necessary to prevent anarchy are such as to make it more difficult to change the status quo when it ought to be changed.”


“It is obvious that, for most purposes, large states are better than small ones, and that no state can adequately fulfill the primary purpose of protecting the lives of its citizens unless it is worldwide.”


“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 and 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 certified variety are given the control of powerful armies, and can inflict death and disaster upon all sane men within their reach.”