This time last year, on the anniversary of Bertrand Russell’s death, I published a piece celebrating his life and work over at On This Deity. Russell is rightly remembered for his work – in collaboration with Alfred North Whitehead – on the three volumes of Principia Mathematica (the book has since passed into the public domain and can be downloaded as a very chunky PDF file if you so wish… it’s currently available on rapidshare, or alternatively do a search for “Principia Mathematica PDF”).
However, while Principia Mathematica doubtlessly secured his place in the ranks of the Great Philosophers, it’s a highly technical and specialised book about the relationship between mathematics and formal logic. I recall flicking through it when I was a philosophy undergraduate and instantly deciding that unless I spent the majority of my three year degree immersed entirely in Principia Mathematica, I wouldn’t do it justice. And given that I was, at the time, more interested in gaining a broad overview of philosophy, rather than focussing on a single narrow aspect of the subject, I read a few bits and pieces about Principia Mathematica in Hospers (and other similar volumes) and pretty much left it at that.
However, it wasn’t long before I encountered the name Bertrand Russell once more. This time it was while I was eagerly devouring books on political philosophy… in particular left wing and anarchist political philosophy. So while to this day I’ve still not gotten around to reading Principia Mathematica, Russell’s Proposed Roads To Freedom: Socialism, Anarchism and Syndicalism was one of the more influential books on my intellectual development. The full text of Proposed Roads… can be read over at the University of Virginia Library website and is worth your while checking out.
Sadly, as I suggested when I was talking about the work of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon recently, the hopes and dreams of Russell in that near-century-old text have been comprehensively ignored by a society which has dedicated itself to the attempted gratification of individual desire through over-consumption. Russell called upon us to overcome these baser instincts and push ourselves onwards, towards a more just and free world. But as he said in Proposed Roads… (echoing the views of Proudhon, half a century earlier) the use of violence to achieve supposedly enlightened ends is almost always self-defeating. The achievement of a better world “requires a breadth of outlook and a comprehensiveness of understanding which are not easy to preserve amid a desperate contest”.
Which is why, as well as being the author of one of the seminal works in logical philosophy, Russell is also remembered for being a dedicated peace campaigner. As a founder-member and the organisation’s first President, he gave the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) the intellectual legitimacy it needed to gain a critical mass. And even into his nineties he was active in the movement (as well as organising international opposition to America’s war in Vietnam). Russell firmly believed that humanity held within itself the ability to move past our aggressive selfishness. He saw clearly that violent competition in nature can be – and often is – tempered with a drive towards cooperation. And he felt that we have reached a point – thanks to technology and our global interconnectedness – where it has become imperative that this cooperative drive should now supersede our competitive instinct. Otherwise we risk destroying all we have achieved.
Russell was convinced that the overthrow of capitalism was necessary for us to achieve this evolution. But he was also convinced this could not be done with violence. At least, not if we wanted to replace it with something better. Of course, it’s difficult to see how it can be achieved non-violently, given how entrenched the power of the capitalists has become. However, as he was fond of saying… “we are obliged to give the matter some thought”.