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Power: A New Social Analysis

by Bertrand Russell

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368354,501 (4)3
The key to human nature that Marx found in wealth and Freud in sex, Bertrand Russell finds in power. Power, he argues, is man's ultimate goal, and is, in its many guises, the single most important element in the development of any society. Writting in the late 1930s when Europe was being torn apart by extremist ideologies and the world was on the brink of war, Russell set out to found a 'new science' to make sense of the traumatic events of the day and explain those that would follow. The result was Power, a remarkable book that Russell regarded as one of the most important of his long career. Countering the totalitarian desire to dominate, Russell shows how political enlightenment and human understanding can lead to peace - his book is a passionate call for independence of mind and a celebration of the instinctive joy of human life.… (more)

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After two years of reading a chapter every now and again I have finally finished. It's a slow book. The concepts are big, and trying to get your head around them requires you to read, stop, slow down, think, reread. But once you learn to accept that this is going to take a while, its magic really does start to show.

As does it's magical humour, which amazingly had me laughing loudly and scribbling down quotes to share. ( )
  KittyCatrinCat | Aug 29, 2021 |
Bertrand Russell

Power: A New Social Analysis

Routledge Classics, Paperback, 2010.

12mo. xxv+258 pp. Preface to Routledge Classics Edition by Samuel Brittan, 2004 [vii-xv]. Introduction by Kirk Willis, 1995 [xvi-xxv].

First published, 1938.
First published in Routledge Classics, 2004.


Preface to the Routledge Classics Edition

1. The Impulse to Power
2. Leaders and Followers
3. The Forms of Power
4. Priestly Power
5. Kingly Power
6. Naked Power
7. Revolutionary Power
8. Economic Power
9. Power over Opinion
10. Creeds as Sources of Power
11. The Biology of Organisations
12. Powers and Forms of Government
13. Organisations and the Individual
14. Competition
15. Power and Moral Codes
16. Power Philosophies
17. The Ethics of Power
18. The Taming of Power



In the course of this book I shall be concerned to prove that the fundamental concept in social science is Power, in the same sense in which Energy in the fundamental concept in physics. Like energy, power has many forms, such as wealth, armaments, civil authority, influence on opinion. No one of these can be regarded as subordinate to any other, and there is no one form from which the others are derivative.

I don’t know if Russell’s analysis is “new” (i.e. original), but it is certainly social. He is concerned with individuals only insofar as they were exceptional enough to influence history. This is why Freud and sex, mentioned by the infinite wisdom of the back cover, are never mentioned in the book; their impact is mostly individual. As for the other presumably potent social force, the author thinks that “the orthodox economists, as well as Marx, who in this respect agreed with them, were mistaken that economic self-interest could be taken as the fundamental motive in social sciences”. Russell would have none, or at least not much, of this:

Economics as a separate science is unrealistic, and misleading if taken as guide in practice. It is one element – a very important element, it is true – in a wider study, the science of power.

Russell’s main thesis is that the impulse to power, existing in countless forms and essentially insatiable, is supposed to have been – and continues to be – a far more potent social force in human history. If not always entirely convincing, Russell’s case is nevertheless solidly argued and invariably thought-provoking. And beautifully written, of course. Consider two famous quotes, here for a change given within their context, as illustrations of his unique style:

Every man would like to be God, if it were possible; some few find it difficult to admit the impossibility. These are the men framed after the model of Milton’s Satan, combining, like him, nobility with impiety. By ‘impiety’ I mean something not dependent upon theological beliefs: I mean refusal to admit the limitations of individual human power. This Titanic combination of nobility with impiety is most notable in the great conquerors, but some element of it is to be found in all men. It is this that makes social cooperation difficult, for each of us would like to conceive of it after the pattern of the cooperation between God and His worshippers, with ourself in the place of God. Hence competition, the need of compromise and government, the impulse to rebellion, with instability and periodic violence. And hence the need of morality to restrain anarchic self-assertion.

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 dictatorship.
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.

No doubt the Zeitgeist had some influence on Russell. In 1938 just about everybody but the most obtuse could see that the world was soon going to suffer badly because of power-hungry individuals deranged by sick ideologies, though just how badly it was going to be very few people, I imagine, were able to foresee. Even Somerset Maugham, one of the most apolitical writers of fiction who ever lived, included some power politics in his novel Christmas Holiday (1939). Likewise Nazism, Fascism and the Spanish Civil War mark Russell’s pages, as does the threat of imminent war: “the chief activity of the State is preparation for large-scale homicide.” I should like to believe this is badly dated today. But is it?

That said, Russell is certainly not a slave to the Zeitgeist. His examples come mostly from ancient Greece and Rome, Renaissance Italy and Revolutionary France, occasionally from the Middle Ages in Europe or the more recent history of China, Japan and the US. You might think Hitler and Mussolini are the superstars of “Naked Power” (i.e. power, usually military, that rests on no tradition). Not so; they are not even mentioned. The superstar is actually Agathocles, the tyrant of Syracuse from 317 BC until his death 28 years later.

As a general rule, Russell explains even his more cryptic allusions, but he does expect you to have solid historical background. You should know something – or, if you don’t, keep handy the World Wide Watershed – about the lives and personalities of Alexander, Caesar and Napoleon, about the Monroe Doctrine, Guernica, the Treaty of Versailles and the history of Christianity. Russell is also fond of quoting a rather eclectic company of fellow writers, from Shakespeare to Leopardi, from Aristotle and Plato to Machiavelli and Gibbon, and from Christian hymns to contemporary studies on history, anthropology, sociology and what not. But his quotes are always relevant and self-sufficient.

Broadly and rather superficially speaking, the book may be split into two parts. The first covers the first three (general) chapters and the next seven which examine different types of power including propaganda (“Power over Opinion”) and fanaticism (“Creeds as Sources of Power”). The second part, more or less the last nine chapters, is concerned with the ethical relation of power to government. The final and longest chapter, “The Taming of Power”, is a splendid summary of the political, economic, psychological and propagandistic dimensions of the problem. It was rightly included by Messrs Egner and Denonn in The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell (1961). A short but amusing chapter on “Power Philosophies”, much at the expense of Fichte, Bergson and Nietzsche, is not strictly necessary to the discussion, but a charming bonus nevertheless. I cannot resist a quote:

Bergson’s Creative Evolution is a power-philosophy, which has been developed fantastically in the last Act of Bernard Shaw’s Back to Methuselah. Bergson holds that the intellect is to be condemned as unduly passive and merely contemplative, and that we only see truly during vigorous action such as a cavalry charge. He believes that animals acquired eyes because they felt that it would be pleasant to be able to see; their intellects would not have been able to think about seeing, since they were blind, but intuition was able to perform this miracle. All evolution, according to him, is due to desire, and there is no limit to what can be achieved if desire is sufficiently passionate. The groping attempts of bio-chemists to understand the mechanism of life are futile, since life is not mechanical, and its development is always such as the intellect is inherently incapable of imagining in advance; it is only in action that life can be understood. It follows that men should be passionate and irrational; fortunately for Bergson’s happiness, they usually are.

Russell’s final conclusion – about power, not about the Bergsonian idiocy[1] – may seem rather obvious, even trite. Desire for power, common to all of us in one degree or another after all, is not undesirable so long as it’s not an end in itself but a means to an end from which other people except the power holder (or his clique) will benefit. Power is to be tamed, not abolished, and so is emotion. Liberal education from early childhood, Russell maintains, is the best way to do this, namely to eradicate the natural habit of “believing an emphatic statement without reasons, and of disbelieving an unemphatic statement even when accompanied by the best of reasons.”

If there is nothing strikingly original in Russell’s reflections, they certainly contain “abundance of sheer good sense and plain speaking”, as Kirk Willis notes in his fine biographical essay. Samuel Brittan, in his nice preface, is right that many of Russell’s opinions may strike the unprepared reader as extremely cynical, but this is indeed “the kind of cynicism that often marks the frustrated idealist”. Here is an example:

This brings us to a source of trouble to many democrats, namely what is called ‘principle’. Most talk about principle, self-sacrifice, heroic devotion to a cause, and so on, should be scanned somewhat sceptically. A little psycho-analysis will often show that what goes by these fine names is really something quite different, such as pride, or hatred, or desire for revenge, that has become idealised and collectivised and personified as a noble form of idealism.

The best expression of Russell’s cynicism is probably his theory of ethics. It has been known to shock some virtuous moralists. He wrote a full-length book on the subject, Human Society in Ethics and Politics (1954), which I haven’t read yet (shame on me!), but I was prepared by the penultimate chapter of Religion and Science (1935). Russell himself mentions this book in Chapter 15, “Power and Moral Codes”, together with a summary of his ideas. Briefly and bluntly, he thinks traditional ethics is nothing more than an attempt to attach impersonal and objective significance to purely personal and subjective desires: “The great ethical innovators have not been men who knew more than others; they have been men who desired more, or, to be more accurate, men whose desires were more impersonal and of larger scope than those of average men.” Even when these desires are admirable in themselves, ethics is philosophically untenable.

Cynicism can be a dangerous weapon to the cynic himself. Sometimes it gets Russell into silly self-contradictions. Not at all surprisingly, he grants reason a larger share in human affairs than usual. But he does qualify his statement in a way that almost invalidates it. The chief example here is the rise of science during the last few centuries from a quixotic hobby of cranky fellows to a social force that has transformed human society almost beyond recognition. But then Russell goes on to argue that this spectacular change has occurred, not because the ordinary fellow in the street understands or cares about science, but because scientific technique has produced tangible results in everyday life. For all I know Russell is completely right there. But this is hardly flattering to human reason.[2]

Somewhat surprisingly, at least to me, Russell reaches the conclusion that fanaticism and propaganda are rather limited ways to acquire power. But he makes solid cases with plenty of examples. The one about fanaticism is especially fascinating. It concentrates mostly on the rise of Islam and the success of Cromwell. The latter was notably short-lived, while the former lasted, and continues to last, because it quickly switched to more reliable forces, first military supremacy and then, in time, tradition. Russell notes perceptively that the instances where fanaticism failed are much more numerous. If not taken into account, this is apt to give a distorted idea of fanaticism as a greater success than it has really been. As for propaganda, it can only be successful when it corresponds to a mass desire generated by specific social conditions, for example when democracy is young:

It is only where democracy has lasted long enough to become traditional that it is stable. Cromwell, Napoleon, and Hitler appeared in the early days of democracy in their respective countries; in view of the first two, the third should be in no way surprising. Nor is there reason to suppose him more permanent than his predecessors.

Russell was a democratic socialist. There is little about socialism here (and even less about his beloved world government), but there is a great deal about democracy. Most of it is a warning. This is for sure the best form of government, Russell says, but it has its share of destructive tendencies which, if left unchecked, may lead to less admirable forms of power. In ancient Greece, for instance, democracy was invented “to check abuses of power, but was perpetually defeating itself by falling a victim to the temporary popularity of some demagogue.” How modern this sounds! “To acquire immunity to eloquence is of the utmost importance to the citizens of a democracy.” Quite so!

Democracy, Russell argues, can oppress minorities just as badly as any tyranny. The opposite is quite true, too. It is currently rampant thanks to the so-called “political correctness”. Every minority that has been oppressed in history, black people, homosexuals, Jews, women (hardly a minority!), you name it, can now get some revenge – and it does. I suppose it’s a natural process that will die out soon enough. But it’s still regrettable and unjust. Mr Brittan, speaking of the abovementioned connection between fanaticism and the rise of Islam, notes that Russell was able to make it because he wrote “before the advent of political and religious correctness.” But is the connection untrue? And if it’s not, its suppression, for whatever reason, is harmful.

That’s the big, the huge problem with political correctness. It perverts truth and promotes hypocrisy. There are people who like this; they value kindness more highly than honesty. I don’t. I value truth above all. If truth proves temporarily unattainable, as sometimes happens for quite some time, difference of opinion and freedom of speech should be encouraged: it is the only way, after all, to reach the truth. If truth is ultimately unattainable, as often happens on purely subjective matters of taste, there is no reason why even such an irascible animal like Homo sapiens cannot learn to tolerate, even enjoy, difference of opinion.

Bertrand Russell has this ability, rare in a writer of such lucidity, to challenge even your most cherished beliefs. In his best books, of which this one is certainly an example, he does that on almost every page. The reader can only benefit from that. Beliefs must be challenged regularly; if false, this improves the chance of their rejection before it’s too late; if true, this can only strengthen them. There is a lot more in this deceptively readable book, but I will leave it for the next reading. Here is one last quote, one of those casual asides that sprinkle Russell’s pages and contain more substance than whole books by many a writer:

It has become a commonplace that aggressiveness also often has its roots in fear. I am inclined to think that this theory has been pushed too far. It is true of a certain type of aggressiveness, for instance, that of D. H. Lawrence. But I greatly doubt whether the men who become pirate chiefs are those who are filled with retrospective terror of their fathers, or whether Napoleon, at Austerlitz, really felt that he was getting even with Madame Mère. I know nothing of the mother of Attila, but I rather suspect that she spoilt the little darling, who subsequently found the world irritating because it sometimes resisted his whims. The type of aggressiveness that is the outline of timidity is not, I think, that which inspires great leaders; the great leaders, I should say, have an exceptional self-confidence which is not only on the surface, but penetrates deep into the subconscious.

To sum up, Power is a powerful read. Few authors can pack more food for thought in 250 pages than Bertrand Russell. None can do it with more eloquence, wit and clarity. Whether you agree with his sweeping generalisations, startling parallels and provocative opinions is quite beside the point. You will be forced to think about almost anything. You will have to reconsider, perhaps even discard, some of your most sacred ideas. You thought them immutable and imperishable, but they are neither.

Do read this book. Even if you agree with nothing in it, your time will not be wasted. It may not have spawned, as Russell hoped with Victorian self-assurance, a new science (powerology?), but it still makes a great read eighty years later.

PS Do avoid this Routledge Classics edition, though. The horrid cover may be forgiven, but the number of typos (including punctuation errors) is absurdly high. Besides, the index is perfunctory. According to Mr Brittan, the book was originally prepared indexless. Whoever compiled this one did a very poor job.

[1] In case you’re interested in Russell’s demolition of Bergson, see Chapter 28 from Book Three of History of Western Philosophy (1946, 2nd edn 1961) or, better still, the essay “Mysticism and Logic”, reprinted in the eponymous collection (1917) and The Selected Papers of Bertrand Russell (1927).
[2] Russell says very little about scientific technique as a form of power, but that’s probably because he had discussed the subject thoroughly in The Scientific Outlook (1931) and would later do so again in The Impact of Science on Society (1952). ( )
3 vote Waldstein | Aug 1, 2018 |
Despite its promises, "Power" isn't really a new analysis of anything, but it is an interesting, and sometimes bracing, meander through the subject. Russell was writing at a particularly tense point in history -- the Second World War was coming on, but hadn't broken out yet -- and so it's not surprising that many of his arguments tend to revolve around what some might term "statism." Still, it's nice to hear from a twentieth-century thinker not in thrall to either Marxism of free-market absolutism, and the author often focuses on some of the emotional or crypto-religious dimensions of power that these philosophies often gloss over as too subjective or unserious for study. Even if you're not inclined to agree with Russell, however, this one is, for a book its type, a surprisingly entertaining read. Reading this one, you can imagine sitting around with the author -- whose intellectual breadth was hugely impressive -- as he expounded what he saw as the basic rules of the power game and illustrated them with examples from the ancient Greeks to the present day. For that reason alone, readers interested in Russell's intellectual background and thought process will likely find a lot to to gnaw on here. For everyone else, "Power" is an interesting lecture in book form, given by a lecturer with an exquisitely lively and organized mind. ( )
1 vote TheAmpersand | May 15, 2013 |
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The key to human nature that Marx found in wealth and Freud in sex, Bertrand Russell finds in power. Power, he argues, is man's ultimate goal, and is, in its many guises, the single most important element in the development of any society. Writting in the late 1930s when Europe was being torn apart by extremist ideologies and the world was on the brink of war, Russell set out to found a 'new science' to make sense of the traumatic events of the day and explain those that would follow. The result was Power, a remarkable book that Russell regarded as one of the most important of his long career. Countering the totalitarian desire to dominate, Russell shows how political enlightenment and human understanding can lead to peace - his book is a passionate call for independence of mind and a celebration of the instinctive joy of human life.

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