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New hopes for a changing world by Bertrand…

New hopes for a changing world (original 1951; edition 1952)

by Bertrand Russell

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Title:New hopes for a changing world
Authors:Bertrand Russell
Info:Simon and Schuster (1952), Hardcover, 213 pages
Collections:Your library

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New hopes for a changing world by Bertrand Russell (1951)



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Bertrand Russell

New Hopes for a Changing World

George Allen & Unwin, Hardback, 1960.

12mo. 218 pp.

First published, 1951.
Second impression, 1956.
Third impression, 1960.


Part One: Man and Nature
I. Current Perplexities*
II. Three Kinds of Conflict
III. Mastery Over Physical Nature
IV. The Limits of Human Power
V. Population

Part Two: Man and Man
VI. Social Units
VII. The Size of Social Units
VIII. The Rule of Force
IX. Law
X. Conflicts of Manners and Life
XI. World Government*
XII. Racial Antagonism
XIII. Creeds and Ideologies
XIV. Economic Co-Operation and Competition
XV. The Next Half-Century*

Part Three: Man and Himself
XVI. Ideas Which Have Become Obsolete
XVII. Fear
XVIII. Fortitude
XIX. Life Without Fear*
XX. The Happy Man
XXI. The Happy World

*These chapters are reprinted in The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell (1961), eds. Robert Egner and Lester Dennon, but they fit much better their original context.


This little book is one of the first volumes Bertrand Russell dedicated entirely to his anxiety about the future of our species, one the most consistent leitmotifs in his writings after World War II. He wrote his Unpopular Essays (1950), he said in a brief preface, in order to combat “the growth of dogmatism […] which has hitherto characterised our tragic century”. In The Impact of Science on Society (1951), he discussed the dehumanizing effects of scientific technique out of control. He published separate works on the Cuban Missile Crisis (Unarmed Victory, 1963) and the Vietnam War (War Crimes in Vietnam, 1967). Above all, he was haunted by the nuclear holocaust that looked all too imminent during the height of the Cold War. That much is quite clear from many of the essays in Fact and Fiction (1961) and books like Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare (1958) and Has Man a Future? (1961).

New Hopes for a Changing World is much broader in scope than any of these books. Inevitably, parts of it are dated (Everest yet to be conquered, indeed!), naive or superficial. Many readers today may well consider Russell’s passionate defence of world government a trifle strange. His reducing much contemporary evils to the common denominator of fear may likewise seem like a sweeping generalisation built on shaky foundations. Sometimes Russell passes over important matters, for instance the relationship between parents and children, or treats them in a rather perfunctory way (e.g. the limitations of science). Quite often in the final chapters he may sound unduly dystopian, ominously speaking of a third world war knocking on the door, or absurdly utopian, raving about a new age of happiness and prosperity yet unheard-of in history. The major theme of his book may be summed up thus:

Modern man is master of his fate. What he suffers, he suffers because he is stupid or wicked, not because it is nature’s decree. Happiness is his if he will adopt the means that lie ready to his hands.

All that said and quoted, there is much in this book that has aged surprisingly well and remains more than relevant in the hopelessly changing world of today. Russell writes with eloquence, humour and massive dose of common sense that often amounts to wisdom. He has a good deal of fascinating, often controversial, things to say about law and justice, fear and hate, education and history, economics and politics, war and peace, human happiness and human misery. He is never flippant, but he is consistently amusing. Describing a possible explosion of the sun in the far future, he remarks with, I imagine, a thin smile or even a chuckle:

This is an extreme example, and one which it is useless to think about, because there is no way in which human behaviour can be adapted to it. It does, however, serve one purpose, which is to remind us that we are not gods. You may exclaim indignantly, ‘but I never thought we were!’ No doubt, dear reader, you are not one of those who suffer from the more extreme follies of our age, for if you were, you would not be one of my readers.

There is an obvious implication of self-futility here that Russell must have been aware of. If his books are read only by people who don’t “suffer from the more extreme follies of our age”, how can they be expected to effect any change? Well, never mind about that.

Russell takes a decidedly global point of view. He views the whole of human race as one huge body which is already united by economics but now has to be unified as a family. He is a very humane humanist. He is emphatic that one of the first things to be done is to stop the growth of population, but he insists that this must be done by decreasing the birth rate, not increasing the death rate. He is equally emphatic that the West, in the face of Europe and America, must do everything possible to raise the standards of living in Asia and Africa if a world society is to be stable. So far as I can see, these are admirable sentiments, not at all dated today. If they are indeed naive, so much the worse for us.

Russell knows perfectly well these are vast challenges that would require hard work for generations. But he is concerned only with what must be done and what can possibly be done, not how it can be achieved or how long it will take. In a nutshell, what we have to do is this:

For love of domination we must substitute equality; for love of victory we must substitute justice; for brutality we must substitute intelligence; for competition we must substitute co-operation.

It must be stressed that Russell’s opinions are much more complex and well balanced than such quotations may suggest. It is very easy to misrepresent him with isolated passages out of context. Take for example the aforementioned world government and fear. Russell is positive that world government must be achieved at least partly by force. He frankly admits this idea is sure to alienate some of his liberal friends, but there it is: “I do not believe that the human race has sufficient statesmanship or capacity for mutual forbearance to establish a world Government on a basis of consent alone.” This sounds sensible to me. In other words, only a rather profound change in human nature, namely the virtual disappearance of nationalism, can make world government by consent alone possible. I would be willing to wait for this and so would Russell, if only we wouldn’t blow ourselves up in the meantime.

As for fear, though some of his inferences do sound simplistic, Russell makes on the whole a fine case that much of the traditional morality is based, not on positive virtues like love and understanding, but on negative prohibitions and fear of being ostracised by the herd. The result is hypocrisy and hate. This is really a vicious circle from which nothing good can come out, an apparently stable system but really a time bomb. Russell is certainly right that fear often breeds hate, and hate, alas, is something that a far greater number of people than generally recognised find pleasurable. But Russell is not content to say together with a dramatic character: “Hate on; I care not.”[1] He wants to eradicate hate before it’s too late.

Russell was rather notorious about changing his opinions on various subjects during his long life (1872–1970). He was unapologetic about that. For my part, he was more right than wrong. He lived through nearly a century which transformed the world more than the previous 50 centuries had done. It was only too natural – and it must have wanted a good deal of courage – to keep abreast with the changing world by changing some of his opinions when scientific evidence demanded it. There is a nice example of this here.

Some twenty years earlier, Russell could write casually that black people are of inherently lower intelligence than the white and thus mostly suitable for hard labour in the tropics. Now, in 1951, he dedicates a whole chapter, and a good one, on “Racial Antagonism” in which he thoroughly debunks all racial prejudices against black, yellow and red people as well as, of course, against Jews. He says flatly there is no evidence that black people are congenitally less intelligent than the white, but then he adds, significantly, that this “will be difficult to judge until they have equal scope and equally good social conditions.” This is one of the very few cases when the book is “dated”. Had he lived today, sixty-six years later, I’m sure Russell would have considered the case of black intelligence proven beyond reasonable doubt.

Though this is not a book dedicated to the extermination of the human race by thermonuclear toys, it does contain a good deal about war. This is intimately linked with nationalism. Russell makes no bones that the history taught in schools to the eager young minds of tomorrow is hopelessly, and falsely, nationalistic. He appeals for a more impartial teaching that would consider history from a human rather than from a national point of view and would emphasise the success of our species on global and international scale, but I’m not sure this is the case in many schools today. Nor I am sure I agree with Russell’s casual equalling of nationalism and patriotism. But he may be right. What is patriotism, indeed, but quite often just another name of nationalism – or provincialism? Russell’s exquisite irony on the subject is worth quoting:

Nationalism is in our day is the chief obstacle to the extension of social cohesion beyond national boundaries. It is therefore the chief force making for the extermination of the human race. Everybody is agreed that the nationalism of other countries is absurd, but the nationalism of one’s own country is noble and splendid, and any man who does not uphold it is a lily-livered cur.

On Sundays men pretended to believe that the meek shall inherit the earth, but on weekdays they effectively believed the exact opposite. The Christian virtues, up to a point, could be tolerated within the tribe, but in dealings with those outside it what was prized was courage, ruthlessness and ferocity disguised under the name of patriotism.

There is a kind of wiseacre who will tell you with a portentous air that you will never succeed in changing human nature, and that human nature loves fighting. ‘You will never manage to put an end to war,’ he says with pretended sorrow but real glee. You may reply: ‘My dear Sir, I think you are displaying some ignorance of the modern art of war. Do you not know that unless an end is put to war by agreement within the next fifty years, an end will be put to war by another and even more efficient method, namely the extermination of the human race?’ At that the wiseacre will only splutter.

The last two of these quotes come from “Ideas Which Have Become Obsolete”, a particularly powerful chapter. It is mostly dedicated to the “surviving pugnacity of mankind” (wonderful phrase!), that is to say our unfortunate tendency, ingrained by many centuries of tyranny and conquest, to glorify strength and war. Russell is downright hilarious in his descriptions of the “he-man” and the “she-woman”: he is the proverbial bully who bullies everybody, she is the proverbial bimbo who worships bullies; and “the more they love each other, the worse they both become.” These are sad and potentially dangerous attitudes, but Russell is a firm believer in the malleability of human nature. However immutable from time immemorial, he seems to say, human nature is amenable to change. And it must be changed, hard though this may be, if we are to have a long-term future. Today, with rampant fanaticism all around the world, it is a hard bargain to disbelieve this.

“No society can be great without great individuals,” says Russell towards the end, “and I should not think much of a world which had secured universal safety at the price of universal mediocrity.” This is an example of stimulating disagreement. For I do think this is precisely the price that will have to be paid when one day, if ever, we do build stable world society. I think in this future world of order and uniformity science will be stunted and art will hardly exist at all. Aldous Huxley in Brave New World (1932) seems to me the better prophet in this respect. But I don’t have too many disagreements with Russell as to find him ridiculous (for such is our vanity that we are apt not to take seriously people whose opinions differ too much from ours), and those few disagreements we do have are certainly thought-provoking.

As for Russell’s unshakable optimism, from which he never wavered and which has often been ridiculed, the best answer to his critics has been given by Arthur Clarke: “I am not ashamed of what some may consider my naïve optimism: surely it is preferable to the all-too-common alternative, naïve pessimism.”[2] Clarke also believed in a new Renaissance, if not a new Eden, stimulated by science and technology, most notably communications and space exploration. Ironically enough, until the end of his life Russell considered spaceflight a waste of valuable resources. He may have been right, after all. We don’t know yet. Either way, both of these great men, Bertrand Russell and Arthur Clarke, are still ahead of our times. This is our loss.

I wouldn’t claim New Hopes for a Changing World is the finest book Bertrand Russell ever wrote. But I do claim it is very much worth reading with attention and an open mind. Old copies can still be found for little more than shipping costs. You could do a lot worse with 66-year-old non-fiction.

[1] Francesco Foscari in the play The Two Foscari (1821) by Lord Byron.
[2] Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future [1962], Millennium Edition, 1999, Chapter 8. ( )
  Waldstein | Oct 15, 2017 |
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