Colin Humphrey


Nobly Wrong

(Winter 1964/5)

From International Socialism, No.19, Winter 1964/5, p.33.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Political Ideals
Bertrand Russell
Unwin Books, 4s. 6d.

There is really little that one can say about this book. As a logician Russell has played a central role in twentieth century thought; as a political thinker he adds little that is new. His thought has been along a strange, trusting middle way between Mill and the Fabians on one hand and Marx on the other. Unfortunately it has not the historical interest of the one or the inspiration of the other. The contradictions in his position are well brought out – needless to say, unintentionally – in this book. He aspires after a society far better than that which the Fabians conceived. It is not only dirt and inefficiency he wants to be rid of. War and alienation are higher on his list. Yet his conception of social change would not worry the most cautious Fabian. This book was originally intended as a lecture to be given by Russell in 1917 in Glasgow. Russell himself was unable to give it because the Government, fearing seditious speeches, banned him from the area. But despite being a testament to his personal courage, the book retains the faults inherent in his conceptions. The contradiction between aspiration and practical proposal distorts the aspiration itself to some extent. In places analysis gives way to moralising. Listing of empirically observable wrongs is never transcended by a conception of capitalist society as a developing whole. The alternative to the wages system is through Parliament; the alternative to war through summit conferences. If there is any real value in this book it is that it stows the extent of the antimonies inherent in the empiricist thought that still dominates even the left wing of the British socialist movement. Many can be seen in a virtually unchanged form in, say, Peace News or Tribune today. In particular there is a close correspondence between Russell’s attitudes in this book and those of his followers today who are never sure whether ‘Socialism and Peace’ imply ‘Neither Washington nor Moscow’ or ‘Washington and Moscow’. They are typified by those members of CND who oppose government in principle and support the United Nations.

Last updated on 17 November 2009